Vanderbilt University has been reported to be closing in on hiring current Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, Clark Lea, as the school’s 29th head football coach. This news comes 15 days after the university fired Derek Mason, who spent almost seven years as Vandy’s head coach, ending his time at the helm with an 0-8 record in the 2020 season.
When you carve out the connections to the school (which you should for any hire), Clark Lea’s résumé reads a lot like Derek Mason’s. 2011-2013 Stanford looks a heck of a lot like 2018-2020 Notre Dame. Lea needs to be a better communicator and build a better staff than Mason.
— Matt Smith (@MattSmithCFB) December 14, 2020
Although Mason never finished a season at Vanderbilt with a winning record, he did manage to take a program with little history of success to two bowl games, both of which the Commodores lost. Following a successful, charismatic coach like James Franklin at Vanderbilt was never going to be easy, but over the last two seasons, one could most certainly make a case that where the program stands today is much worse than when Mason took over.
With Vanderbilt hovering above Rock Bottom, Lea, 38, makes the most sense to take over at one of the Power 5’s most difficult jobs.
Lea has strong Nashville ties – attending Montgomery Bell Academy in high school before a brief stint on the Belmont baseball team. He finished up at Vandy where Lea walked on at fullback under head coach Bobby Johnson from 2002-2004.
#NotreDame D-coordinator Clark Lea emerging as the top target to become #Vanderbilt's next head coach, sources tell @ClowESPN. Lea is a Nashville native who played at Vandy. I'm hearing the hire will be finalized before midweek. Buffalo's Lance Leipold also among those considered
— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) December 14, 2020
However, Lea’s ties to Vanderbilt do not stop on the gridiron. Lea is a good friend of Vandy’s head baseball coach, and the single most powerful person in the school’s athletic department in Tim Corbin. This connection has already proven to be advantageous as Corbin was said to be involved in the search for the football program’s next coach.
Lea has served under Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly as the Fighting Irish’s defensive coordinator over the past three seasons. During Lea’s tenure, Notre Dame has excelled on the defensive side of the ball and currently has the Fighting Irish defense as one of the top units in college football, holding opponents to just 17.1 ppg, which ranks 12th in the country.
Lea has even positioned himself to be a potential finalist for the Broyles Award given to the nation’s best assistant coach in college football.
Brian Kelly should be the AP Coach of the Year (which would be his third time winning it). Clark Lea should run away with the Broyles Award (top assistant). This entire staff has done an incredible job this season. #GoIrish @NDFootball
— Tom Mendoza (@TomMendozaTalks) November 28, 2020
Prior to arriving at Notre Dame, Lea made stops as UCLA, South Dakota State, Bowling Green, Wake Forest, and Syracuse as an assistant coach before being promoted to defensive coordinator at Notre Dame.
When addressing the search for the next head football coach, Vanderbilt Athletic Director Candice Lee emphasized the importance of a strong offensive presence.
Candice Lee said she's looking for a head coach that's "offensive minded" — either offensive background or someone prominent on staff for offense.
She added that style of play is important.
— Adam Sparks (@AdamSparks) November 30, 2020
Vandy’s freshman quarterback Ken Seals proved that he is a player that a school can build around after breaking the school’s freshman passing record in a condensed 2020 schedule.
The biggest hire Lea will make will be the offensive coordinator. This position on Lea’s staff is especially critical if he intends to generate any buzz and excitement around a fanbase that has yearned for a more modern approach to the offensive side of the ball in nearly a decade.
Clark Lea informed Notre Dame’s defensive players on Monday he intends to coach at Notre Dame for the remainder of this season and "all I care about right now is the next three weeks.”
— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) December 14, 2020
Clark will finish out the season at Notre Dame, where the Fighting Irish are currently ranked No. 2 in the nation with a legitimate shot at a National Championship.
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